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An electric-assist bike offered by Zygg, a Toronto-based e-bike rental service.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Everyone who tries the Zygg has a similar reaction: a short scream, followed by a smile as the e-bike suddenly streaks forward with unnatural speed, as if someone hit fast-forward on a VHS.

The bike’s electric motor augments your own pedalling power so you feel like Lance Armstrong, ready to climb the tallest mountain without breaking a sweat. Or, at the very least, ready to ride across town without ever pausing to think “It’s uphill, and it’s far and – forget it, I’ll just take an Uber.

Suddenly, the whole city and its suburbs are within easy biking distance. Your first time riding an e-bike feels like the first time you held an iPhone, or maybe something like your first time in an airplane: thereʼs a sense of delight, wonder, but also possibility.

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“This is a kind of magical device,” says Kevin McLaughlin, founder of Zygg Mobility Inc., an e-bike subscription service that launched in Toronto in June.

For $69 to $189 a month, Zygg will rent you a pedal-assist electric bicycle. No sharing, no docking. It is, effectively, your bicycle – and we are talking about a bicycle here, not one of the larger, Vespa-style e-scooters. Zygg supplies a lock, takes care of maintenance, and will swap it for a fresh one if it breaks. The price varies, depending on which of their three bike models you want and whether you subscribe for a 12-month contract, just the summer or month-to-month.

As the pandemic continues to make people wary of taking public transit, more commuters who don’t own a car are looking to buy one, and bicycle sales have surged to the point it’s become difficult to find one in stock. People are looking for new ways to get around, and Zygg presents an intriguing, timely new option.

“Weʼve got people from Regent Park to Rosedale, from 21 to 82 years old, all giving it a try, and for all different reasons,” McLaughlin says.

On a weekday in August, Deb Reeves, a teacher, arrives at the Zygg office in downtown Toronto to collect her new e-bike. Her son is going to school in the United States, so they’ve given him the family’s second car, she explains. She plans to use the Zygg for her 20-kilometre commute instead of buying another car.

“I just think, this fall, being able to be outside is important,” she says. She describes herself as an occasional cyclist, but was sold on Zygg after taking a test ride.

Your first time riding an e-bike feels like the first time you held an iPhone, or maybe something like your first time in an airplane: thereʼs a sense of delight, wonder, but also possibility.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

A map on the wall at Zygg’s headquarters – the first floor of an old brick building near Regent Park – shows that most customers live in or around the downtown area or near subway lines. But Zygg also has riders in Etobicoke, Mississauga, North York and Scarborough.

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Zygg is the first e-bike subscription service in North America, and demand has been strong so far, McLaughlin says. Nearly every new e-bike the company gets is immediately spoken for.

Prior to Zygg, McLaughlin co-founded car-sharing companies AutoShare and Modo. He also worked on French automaker Groupe PSA’s car-sharing service in Washington, D.C.

Car-sharing, though, doesn’t really work for daily commuting. Before the pandemic, McLaughlin imagined Zygg as a new option for commuters underserved by transit, or those who would rather not drive but saw no viable alternative. The pandemic changed everything. “We certainly are not here to take people off transit, but … obviously, people are looking to alternatives,” he says.

I tried Zygg’s cheapest bike, the Model M, which costs $69 a month on a yearly subscription or $139 for a single month. Sign-up was online and then, at the allotted delivery time, a white van pulled up in front of my apartment and out jumped McLaughlin to explain how my new bike works.

You switch it on by pressing a button on the frame, then select the boost level – which dictates how much the electric motor augments your pedalling – using the plus and minus buttons on the handlebars. It’s an odd-looking bike, developed by General Motors’s recently shuttered Ariv e-bike division.

The motor makes a loud, coarse “eeeee” noise when it kicks in, so it’s obvious to bystanders why you’re not breaking a sweat. Hold down a little red button – effectively a throttle – and the bike takes off on electric power alone, no pedalling required, although this drains the battery quickly. It feels fast, with one obvious caveat – for a bicycle.

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The Model V's cargo rack makes it a more effective commuter bike.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Going uphill, sweaty friends on old-fashioned non-electric bicycles could only watch and curse as I cruised past. They got the last laugh, though, seeing me haul the 19.5-kilogram bike up some stairs. That was by far the most tiring part of an otherwise breezy ride across the city. I found myself using the Zygg instead of driving for almost every solo trip, anywhere in the city; it was simply more fun, although I suspect that may not be the case once temperatures drop below freezing.

Plugging the bike into a regular household outlet should recharge its battery in three to four hours, except that one day, it didn’t. The battery wouldn’t charge.

Jennifer McLaughlin, Zygg’s manager of rider experience – and Kevin’s sister – picked up the phone. She helped troubleshoot the issue, and when nothing worked, she offered to have a replacement bike delivered later that day. If only getting my car fixed was that easy.

Top speed on the Model M is limited to about 26 km/h before the motor cuts out. At those speeds, the small wheels and steep steering angle make the bike twitchy, especially over rough roads, so it works best when riding slowly. It’s an affordable, unintimidating entry into e-biking. Anyone who is at least 21 years old can sign up for a subscription.

Next, I tried the pricier Model V, which is a much better commuter bike thanks to its cargo rack and bigger wheels. It costs $99 a month on a yearly subscription or $189 for a single month. It’s also a GM design, originally called the Ariv Verity, which never made it to market. At 26.5 kilograms, it’s even less fun to lug up stairs.

Those two models have a rated range of up to 60 kilometres; I got an estimated 35-40 km before needing to recharge, but I leaned heavily on that red throttle button. The third model, the $99-a-month Zygg Model G – made by the Dutch brand Gazelle – has up to 175 km of range. It’s the most comfortable of the three bikes, too.

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As with regular bikes, demand for pedal-assisted e-bikes surged during the summer of COVID-19. In June alone, sales of e-bikes rose 190 per cent in the United States compared with the same month last year, according to market research firm NPD Group.

A bike like the Model G would cost about $4,000 to purchase – equivalent to 3.3 years of monthly Zygg fees – and you’d have to pay for repairs and maintenance, too. But if you’ve got that kind of cash and you’re committed, buying an e-bike may be a better bet. Alternatively, if you just want to try one, Bike Share Toronto recently added 300 e-bikes to its city-wide fleet.

“Shared mobility,” McLaughlin says, “is really a world where youʼre mixing and choosing the best vehicle for that trip; it can depend on the weather, or your age, or whatever.”

Zygg's bikes are available on yearly, single-summer or month-by-month subscriptions.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

In other words, the future is multi-modal transportation. For most people, a Zygg bike alone won’t replace a car. But a Zygg bike combined with improved cycling infrastructure, a car-share membership, ride-hailing apps and – post-COVID-19 – a bus pass for the coldest winter months, well, maybe that could replace a car, or at the very least a second car, thereby reducing pollution and traffic congestion.

“My whole life Iʼve been trying to, in some ways, turn people from a two-car household into a one-car household and call that a victory,” McLaughlin says.

Despite increasingly fuel-efficient and electric vehicles, climate-change-causing pollution from cars, SUVs and light trucks is continuing to rise, while at the same time traffic and congestion in Canadian cities is bad and will likely worsen as more people return to work. And yet, so many commuters in this city and others don’t have a good alternative to driving. Clearly, new solutions are required. Zygg is not right for everyone, but it will be the right answer for some, and that’s enough to call it a victory.

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A bicycle subscription service based in the Netherlands, called Swapfiets, has more than 120,000 members. Zygg plans to expand to a second city in Canada next year.

After giving up the Zygg and returning to my old human-powered bicycle, I’d completely forgotten how much work it is to pedal the old-fashioned way. It’s uphill? Maybe I’ll just drive.

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